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February 19, 2007

Help Wanted

Help Wanted

by Michele Martinez

I am a living example of the principle that book learning and common sense do not always go hand-in-hand.  Despite various diplomas moldering away in that box in the basement, sometimes I barely manage to navigate daily life.  For example, it took about five times of my kids shouting "YOU LEFT THE LIGHTS ON!" before I realized they were gleaning that information from the beeping noise the car makes when you turn it off.  But I do learn from experience.  Now when I turn the car off, I recognize that sound all by myself.

This cluelessness makes sense given my personal history.  I left the hallowed halls of Alma Mater Go to fullsize image armed with a nuanced understanding of the difference between John Locke and John Stuart Mill, ready willing and able to sit for any exam (essay, multiple choice or short answer), but not fit for much else.  I then immediately landed a job on Al Gore's Senate staff writing form answers to constituent mail and coding them for the word processing department. 

On any given day, I produced scores of letters like this:

Dear [NAME],

Thank you for your insightful comments regarding [ISSUE #17] and [ISSUE # 32].  I share your concern for the future of our great nation.  Rest assured that I am considering legislation that will [INSERT RESPONSE 342].

Sincerely [ACTIVATE SIGNATURE MACHINE]               

                                            Go to fullsize image

It was the perfect job for me, the only requirements being fluency in English and Doublespeak, a language brilliantly taught at Alma Mater.

Next, I went to law school.  Those of you out there with real jobs may laugh, but to me, law school was an oasis of practicality compared with what had gone before.  They didn't exactly teach me how to do anything, but they did teach fundamental principles underlying things I might want to do someday.  For example, in Family Law, I learned about Community Property, very useful if I ever needed to draft a pre-nup or get divorced, neither of which I've ever done, thankfully.  I also learned about the Rule Against Perpetuities (a/k/a/ "Purple Chewy Things").  Extremely useful in drafting a will, which I have never done, but also helpful in explicating "Body Heat," one of my favorite movies.                                              Go to fullsize image

I left law school with a tan (come to think of it, how stupid can I be if I went to law school in California?) committed to the ideal of Finally Doing Something.  After kicking around for a few more years clerking for a judge and working at a law firm where I didn't accomplish much, I realized my greatest dream and got hired by the U.S. Attorney's Office, a place where real life happened, where my actions mattered, where I would need -- GASP! -- common sense.

Luckily, the powers-that-be recognized that we all showed up fresh from the ivory tower not knowing a blessed thing, so they trained us.  My first taste of this was the day before my first oral argument in the Second Circuit.  Julie from Appeals was called in to give me the intensive prep session.

"What do I need to know?" I asked her anxiously. 

"Do you commute to work in your sneakers and keep your shoes under the desk in your office?"

"Yes."

"When you go to the Second Circuit, bring your shoes."

At last, I had come home.  A place where they truly understood my kind.  I'd already memorized all the case law.  The Latin phrases flowed trippingly from my tongue.  But I was unlikely to bring my shoes unless Julie from Appeals told me to.  I lived the next eight years in a state of perfect bliss, accomplishing important things without screwing up, all because I'd finally been told how to find the courtroom and which file folder to bring.

But then I switched careers.  Talk about impractical, I am now An Author.  Not only do I never need to get dressed or leave my house, but everything I write in my books, I'm allowed, even encouraged, to make up.  After six years of this, I am so out of touch with reality that it's amazing I haven't accidentally burned my house down.  Under the circumstances, I feel I must take action.  So I'm putting out a call for practical tips relating to being an author.  You know the type.  Things that will actually help me survive in this business day-to-day.  Here are a few that people have given me so far:

  • Set up your computer as far away from your refrigerator as possible;
  • A novel is about a lot of things; a short story is about one thing (courtesy of Reed Farrel Coleman);
  • At conventions, you can keep your money and room key in that nametag thing that goes around your neck;
  • Mr. Typepad works best if you sing to him (okay, that one's mainly about blogging).

Any and all help much appreciated.

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Comments

If on tour or at a convention, never miss a chance to hit the bathroom. This increases exponentially if one is a presenter or speaker.

Coffee that does not belong in the crankcase of a rusted pickup truck in Kentucky will get you past deadline.

Sleepless nights come with the territory.

Invest in at least one version of Tom Clancy's 'Rainbow Six' computer games, and find all the Cheat Codes. Nothing is more satisfying than shooting or blowing up 150 CGI Bad Guys when your agent or publisher calls and says "Um, er, well, it's not gonna happen."

If the voices in your head tell you you're not a writer, your plot stinks, and you can't even construct a proper sentence, never underestimate the value of the classic phrase "Shut the *F* up!" (Extra points if you can say that in a Bruce Willis voice; quintuple points if you can say it in a Bruce Willis voice and you're female.)

If you have a favorite type of keyboard and mouse, and it finally gives out because you've pounded on it for years, make eBay your first stop. Don't waste time, immediately submit the highest possible bid. It will be worth it.

A large bowl of homemade trail mix sitting on your desk is better for you than a humidor of cigars sitting on your desk. When it's three a.m. and you're staring at a blank screen hearing it whisper, "Bring it, baby, show me what you've got if you're good enough!" the crunching sound of dried banana chips cannot be underestimated. (If you're actually hearing the blank screen whisper to you, ignore the above and light a cigar.)

Lastly, I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure it was Jonathan Kellerman who said something along the lines of, "These days, I get paid for doing what got me into trouble at school; staring into space and playing with my imaginary friends."

Learn to say No and mean it.

I'm not an author, but I've seen lots of authors get into trouble when someone asks them for a favor having to do with reading a manuscript or providing a cover blurb. Your name is worth something - don't cheapen it.

Otherwise, when the gas level in your car hits a quarter tank, fill it up.

As for Mr. Typepad, I find he responds well to positive affirmations.

After you say your prayers at night,
ask yourself ONE question about the book your are currently writing.

The next morning you will forget about the refrigerator because you are so busy writing.

Is it too late for "Don't have kids?"

That Just Say No thing Rebecca mentioned--that's good. Or so I've heard.

Find a critique partner who is not afraid to whip your work in progress into shape. Or, occasionally, when necessary, your ass.

A guest room and a laptop that is NOT connected to the internet is a very good thing to have.

A hotel room and a laptop that is NOT connected to the internet is a very good thing to do. I'm doing it next weekend--solo. (Anybody planning to be near Lancaster, PA--call me, we'll have lunch.)

At the end of whatever I'm working on, I write one or two sentences of something that needs to come ahead. It helps me not to forget, and to get started the next day. I have no trouble getting to work, but I have terrible trouble moving forward sometimes. That's a semi-cure. I'm still looking for a better one.

Benign neglect is a viable child-rearing strategy.

Get a treadmill. It's perfect for stacking printed-out chapters.

Keep a pair of warm socks in a desk drawer.

Invest in zillions of Post-It notes. Keep them in all rooms in case inspiration strikes--including the loo.

Print out often. And email versions of your ms to the aforementioned kiss-ass critique partner. Also, get one of those key fob thingies to back up your ms and keep it in a different room from your computer. Sure, these are all ways of backing up files in case your computer crashes, but it's also for peace of mind when you're attending a kid swim meet and start to fantasize that your house is burning down with a year's worth of writing in it.

I knew you guys were all pros, but now I REALLY know it! I'm taking notes. And I'm proud to say I'd already figured some of this out on my own. Like notepads in different rooms, a computer with no internet access, thinking about the book at bedtime (can't help that anyway, but you're right, Dave!), and trying to make my obsessive snack be something healthy (that one I rarely succeed). On everything else posted above, I'm taking notes.

"Kiss-ass" Nancy? Don't you mean, "kick-ass"? Or do you really mean "kiss-ass"? Huh? Huh?

Um, Michele, if you do e-mail your manuscript to people, please know that some people actually delete old e-mails before they stack into, oh, 10,000 or so. So unless you specifically say, "Save this for me" they might not. Just saying.

Also, if you post something on a blog, sometimes people read it and then send you annoying e-mails wanting more info that's not necessarily any of their business, such as, why are you staying in a hotel next weekend. The "and I'm not" part is usually only implied.

BTW, this was a good post. I really like that line about a novel being about many things, and a short story about one. Just to say something that was on topic.

Yes, yes, yes, "kick ass!" Oh, hell, it's Monday morning, huh?

Great blog, Michele.

Drugs.

Or so I've heard. Not that I would know.

Be nice to everyone on the way up.........and when you get there. This is for others as MM had the instinct from jump.

Back ups in the frezzer. Trust me, we had one house burn down in the country. Actually, I have heard more than one author say this.

Listen to your heart and your fans.................NYC pros are months behind any "trends".

Keep one little notebook for ideas about who should get an invite to buy/review/display/sell/etc your new book. Paste in any clippings from papers and mags with ideas for same.

There are a few more but I save them for personal conversations with writer friends.

Mary Alice.....coming down down off chemo #3 high.

Be nice to everyone on the way up.........and when you get there. This is for others as MM had the instinct from jump.

Back ups in the frezzer. Trust me, we had one house burn down in the country. Actually, I have heard more than one author say this.

Listen to your heart and your fans.................NYC pros are months behind any "trends".

Keep one little notebook for ideas about who should get an invite to buy/review/display/sell/etc your new book. Paste in any clippings from papers and mags with ideas for same.

There are a few more but I save them for personal conversations with writer friends.

Mary Alice.....coming down down off chemo #3 high.

Here's some advice for all of my Boss Ladies: stop limiting your options.

Some times the ass in question needs to be kicked and sometimes it needs to be kissed. And sometimes you've gotta switch it up.

As for Mr. Typepad - same concept. That boy gave me no problems after I showed him who was in charge.

And hey - half my friends are off today, so I should be getting time and a half.

Apropos of nothing, here's a hilarious blog about a basketball game in our local Catholic diocese: http://www.workingstiffs.blogspot.com/

When you go to the refrigerator for a snack, take your reading glasses off *first* so you don't leave them on a shelf in the fridge while examining its contents.

See, Laura, that glasses in the refrigerator thing is something I would totally do! I need help figuring out how NOT to do stuff like that.

God bless you, Mary Alice. We are all amazed at your strength and glad to see you here at TLC every day.

Drugs. Well, this is something I can't try since I might want a security clearance again and it might not be during a Clinton Administration. (Another reason to love Bill: I was completely truthful about high school and college drug use and still got clearance! Will Hillary be that understanding?) But I am a big believer in heavy caffeination, like, to the point where your hands shake so bad that you almost can't type.

Ramona dear, I'm just down 283 from Lancaster and I've got a serious case of cabin fever. Attila-the-Husband has been taking my car (all wheel drive) since Mother Nature dumped that load of concrete on us last week. Hopefully we'll have his car dug out and drivable in a few more days - sigh.
Just tell me when and where to meet you. - jody

Michele,

I don't think it will matter whether Hillary will be understanding. It's hard to imagine that she can win, whether one would prefer that or not. Too many people despise her for being an uppity woman.

Btw, on a topic from last week, does your undergraduate diploma say "Harvard" or "Radcliffe" or something else? My know-it-all law student intern told me that they first gave females Harvard diplomas, which would be news to my wife, who got her first-class-citizen diploma in 1976.

I also love the idea you have on your website about being available for book clubs. That sounds like a great way to build reader goodwill.

Josh -- I'm pretty sure it says Harvard. If not, it says Harvard-Redcliffe. It definitely does not say just Radcliffe. However, it's sitting in a box in my basement and I'm in South Carolina right now. I'll have to check it out when I get back.

Speaking of South Carolina, I'm looking out longingly at the sparkly Atlantic from here at the desk in the hotel room. My kids are off riding bikes with dad while I spend this vacation trying to meet my next deadline. I read the comments about not having kids (yes Ramona, way too late!) and raising them through benign neglect (and look how beautifully yours turned out, Nancy!). But what do you do when you'd actually rather be with them? The one thing nobody's ever figured out is the whole work/motherhood conundrum.

Hillary is going to win, and you can quote me on that. (Not that we do politic here at TLC).

Josh -- I'm pretty sure it says Harvard. If not, it says Harvard-Redcliffe. It definitely does not say just Radcliffe. However, it's sitting in a box in my basement and I'm in South Carolina right now. I'll have to check it out when I get back.

Speaking of South Carolina, I'm looking out longingly at the sparkly Atlantic from here at the desk in the hotel room. My kids are off riding bikes with dad while I spend this vacation trying to meet my next deadline. I read the comments about not having kids (yes Ramona, way too late!) and raising them through benign neglect (and look how beautifully yours turned out, Nancy!). But what do you do when you'd actually rather be with them? The one thing nobody's ever figured out is the whole work/motherhood conundrum.

Hillary is going to win, and you can quote me on that. (Not that we do politic here at TLC).

Nancy, thanks for the workingstiff blog. Some basketball game.

you need

no help

but time

and a kiss

to soothe

the pain

that every day

will bring

If Hillary wins,
that asteroid scheduled for April 2036
will arrive in January 2009.

Jody/J. Renee--If you are serious about rendezvous-ing in Lancaster, e-mail me! I tried to do the same by clicking on your name, but wasn't allowed.

I hope you see this, I know it's a day late.

Ramona

DRW: WTF?

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